Trey Ratcliff and Macphun conspire to make best HDR image processing app for the Mac

I’m sure every photographer knows Trey Ratcliff. He turned HDR photography into an art form. He helped Macphun with the development of Aurora HDR, a brand-new HDR image editing (High Dynamic Range) powerhouse.

For the sake of this review and because Aurora HDR is, well, very powerful, I’m going to occasionally refer to Photomatix Pro 5. Until now, this was the golden standard for HDR image processing and if you have a thorough understanding of its many menus, sliders and settings, you may create true gems with it. However, it is a bit hampered by a rather complicated user interface.

Merge together the power of Photomatix Pro with a user-friendly interface and add layers and brush/gradient masking to the app, and what you’ll end up with comes close to Aurora HDR. To review the new software, I received an Aurora HDR Pro licence, which has a few features that set it apart from everything else on the market. Aurora HDR is a Mac App Store app. Aurora HDR Pro is available from Macphun’s online store as well as from the Stuck in Customs website managed by Trey Ratcliff himself.

Aurora HDR compare mode 2. For HDR image editing
Aurora HDR has two compare modes. This is the side-by-side mode.

With any version of Aurora HDR, you’ll get the Macphun HDR algorithm, which is quite good. You’ll also get:

  • A complete image toolbox
  • Trey Ratcliff’s Signature Pro presets
  • Layers, masks, brushes and gradient tools for selective editing
  • Radiance controls and custom texture blending
  • Plug-in that works with Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture (and a Photos plug-in undoubtedly in the works).

Aurora HDR allows you to load from one to up to seven images for creating your HDR result. The Pro version increases this number to 14. Aurora HDR supports the import of JPEG, PNG and TIFF formats, with the Pro version adding RAW. As with any HDR app worthy of the name, it works in 32-bit to ensure the best results. Oh, and it’s incredibly fast, even with large images.

Preparing the HDR image

Once you selected your single image or series of bracketed images you’ll be taken to a preview window where you can automatically correct for alignment problems, reduce ghosting and chromatic aberration (— Pro only). None of these have fine-tuning settings nor can you correct the automatic results by visually evaluating afterwards. I found Photomatix Pro 5 to offer a better user experience in this area, although I must admit that even manual correction can’t account for large differences between shots.

When the images have been merged, you’ll end up in the working window that closely resembles other Macphun interfaces — very easy to use, that is. Here you will find a complete toolset, including zoom, comparison, crop, move and histogram buttons, as well as brush and layers buttons. You’ll also get a lot of information on the image you’re working with.

The starting “look” of the HDR image is already somewhat processed and looks natural but compared to Photomatix Pro’s starting position a bit over-saturated. You can quickly undo the optimisation by resetting all panels and then you’ll end up with about the same flat, but still somewhat more processed look.

Aurora HDR interface
Trey Ratcliff’s presets applied to one of his bigger images. This image processed in less than 3 minutes on an iMac i5/2.3GHz (mid-2011).

The fastest way to HDR Nirwana is to select one of the many presets. I tried them all. The Trey Ratcliff looks are great. The others are too — it all depends on your subject. You can start from a preset, but if you’re after a very subtle, natural look, my advice is to start from scratch. You can then save your own look as a preset for later use.

Two comparison modes allow you to see the effects from your efforts compared to the image that sits in the middle of the bracketing series.

The tools to create a truly unique HDR image

Photomatix Pro 5 comes with a decent enough user guide, but I’m happy to say Macphun went the extra mile. Their user guide is brilliant, explaining in detail what each tool does and the results you may expect from using it.

You can apply all tools to the whole image — the background layer so to speak. I’m not going to discuss every tool on its own, but let me just say the toolbox is very complete, with a couple of nice unique tools like the Top & Bottom Lighting effect (in essence a digital Neutral Density Filter).

Comparing Aurora HDR Pro’s tools to those of Photomatix Pro 5 is a bit hard, because Photomatix doesn’t include the basic image tools that Aurora HDR does. However, a HDR tool that is totally absent from Photomatix is a colour toning tool. Aurora HDR allows you to apply a separate colour tone to the highlights and the shadows. You can set a balance between the two as well. I tried that with a photo containing a pale blue sky and introduced an overall subtle blue colour cast.

One tool that’s available in Photomatix Pro 5 and not in Aurora HDR is the Replace tool. In Photomatix Pro 5 you can replace part of a HDR image with the area of one of the composing images. For example, a sky that looks washed out in the HDR version can be replaced with the sky of the EV-3 version if it looks better.

In Aurora HDR you don’t have this ability. Instead, you can create a layer and then apply a mask so you can process the sky on its own. Using the colour/saturation tools, for example, you can achieve the same effect. It’s a whole different workflow and if I had to choose between one and the other I would opt for Aurora HDR’s approach because it allows more control over the end-result.

Layers and brushes

Layers behave the same way as they do in Photoshop or Affinity Photo. You can change blending modes and transparency, but above all, you can create them to apply masks — which are very user-friendly to work with — and thus block parts of the image from edits.

Aurora HDR brushes
The brushes for masking areas. To be used together with layers.

Masks are brushed or created with a gradient tool. You can also create a luminosity mask and fill your layer with a mask based on the brightness of the image. With masks, and luminosity masks in particular, you can strengthen or weaken the HDR effects in specific areas of your image.

This puts you in total control of the results. If your only objective is to create a natural looking image that shows details in shadows and highlights beyond the dynamic capabilities of your camera’s sensor, masks help you achieve that goal easily and fast. This is one area in which I think Aurora HDR far surpasses Photomatix Pro 5. Needless to say layers, masks and gradient masks also enable you to take “artsy looks” further than without them.

Aurora HDR, HDR image editing app, gradient tool
Aurora HDR has a gradient tool that allows you to create subtle and smooth effects.

Conclusion

If you’re into High Dynamic Range photography or want to at least try it, I would recommend Aurora HDR Pro without hesitation. The only thing I would wish for is the ability to manually correct ghosting, chromatic aberration and alignment errors. I probably wouldn’t do better than the algorithm, but it’s kind of reassuring that you could give it a try.

In all other areas of the HDR image creation process, I found Aurora HDR Pro to be the new king of HDR photography on the Mac. Aurora HDR costs approx. €47.25. Aurora HDR Pro costs about €94.45.

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